Every day in the United States, at least 36 million meetings are held. It’s no surprise to anyone that, in many of these meetings, people bring in unrelated work, produce grade-school-worthy doodles, and even catch up on some ZZZs. Each year, we waste an estimated $37 billion on unproductive meetings, with executives spending up to 23 hours of their work week in meetings.
For anyone following the meetings-mania coverage of late, none of this will come as a surprise. It is interesting to note, however, that most people still believe that meetings are fruitful, and they don’t want to give them up. After all, humans love to connect. This means that the problem might not be with the number or length of meetings, but rather with the fact that most meetings don’t respect people’s time, leaving them feeling fatigued, and worse still, abused. All too often, our meetings don’t honor relationships.
To make matters still more complicated, according to Fast Company, half of all workplaces could be remote by as early as 2020. That doesn’t leave us a lot of time to prepare. Whether our meetings are in person or remote, we absolutely must mind them, and mind them well.
Meetings, almost by definition, are our opportunities to make those connections that are good for people and great for business. Here’s how to make them better.
Have a purpose
How many times have you and your team reached an impasse on a project and decided that the best way to address the impasse was to have a meeting? Then, someone sends out an invite, and everyone shows up with the problem still on the table, suggesting that simply by virtue of being together you will know what to do next.
Try this: Before sending that invite, pause and ask, “Is this meeting really necessary? If so, what is its purpose?”
Like everything else in the human workplace, meetings are most useful when they are linked directly to a company’s values, which then trickle down into preferences and ways of working. If your company values a meticulous process over quick and dirty decision-making, then schedule think-tank-type gatherings periodically, and let go of the more aimless status meetings.
A company’s meetings should reflect its values like everything else it does. Know who you are, and design your meetings accordingly.
Multitasking in the workplace is a serious and costly epidemic. Research out of corporate wellbeing services company Workplace Options discovered that social media distractions may cost the U.S. economy $650 billion per year.9 And our meetings are a breeding ground for multitasking.
More often than not, people are surreptitiously texting under the table, scrolling through their email, or perusing their Instagram feed, all while maintaining eye contact. Not only is the “Wait, what?” response very rude, it’s also bad for business and for our brains. Research has shown, time and time again, that multitasking erodes productivity and results.
So if meetings are that tricky, why bother? This is a question many people are asking, and rightly so. We have witnessed the enormous amount of time lost and the resentment gained from all these meetings. On the other hand, we have also observed that people like to meet. If you take the plunge and send out that invite, first and foremost, make sure the meeting has a purpose. Then, insist that everyone invited makes his or her presence known. When you call people together, it’s up to you to honor the relationships you aim to build.
Set the tone—literally
To ensure we are present from the very beginning of each and every meeting, we must set the tone. Sometimes this means we ring an actual bell. This is what fashion maverick Eileen Fisher does. She opens her meetings with the chime of a meditation gong, indicating that it’s time for a centering moment of quiet. Sometimes it means setting the tone the way Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella does. He opens his senior leadership meetings with what is called “Researcher of the Amazing,” a story from one executive (a seat that rotates each month) on how some piece of Microsoft technology is being used in alignment with Microsoft values. One example described Microsoft engineers in Turkey connecting through video conference to reveal an app they developed for reading books aloud to the visually impaired. It can also mean bringing people together the way Lyft does. The ride-sharing start-up asks new hires for a few fun facts that can be used in a light roast at their first all-hands meeting.
Even simple efforts and little tweaks work. Centro, a digital advertising firm in Chicago, begins each meeting with a simple round-robin check-in, asking each participant to share a bit about how she or he is feeling. This allows people to be present by addressing where they are emotionally as well as physically.
To counter meeting doldrums, workplace strategist Max Chopovsky suggests that people use physical space to improve their meetings. Chopovsky recommends “reduc[ing] the number of long and narrow conference room tables, to create a more collaborative environment and encourage inclusive conversation.”
Conference rooms should instead be furnished with circular tables, which create a more inclusive and open dynamic that allows for better interaction and communication. Remember King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table? According to legend, the great king valued his knights’ input and frequently sat down with them to discuss strategies at a circular table, and Camelot was stronger because of it. Perhaps the King of Camelot was on to something! On a personal note, this fix is especially resonant to me: whenever I go out to dinner with a group, I always request a circular table to improve the conversation dynamics.
Setting the tone for diversity in meetings means making sure we don’t just bring people to the table, but that we hear from them and listen to them as well. Meetings are notoriously dominated by a few very comfortable speakers. Kellogg School of Management Professor Leigh Thompson’s research tells us that two people typically do more than 60% of the talking in a six-person meeting. If the group size is increased, the issue is exacerbated.14 Even if we manage to assemble truly diverse teams (empirically the most effective), it stands to reason that they won’t do us much good if we don’t hear from everyone who is present.
Adam Grant, prolific author and Wharton professor, urges people to be on the lookout for meeting conformity. He suggests that the leader of any meeting should consider herself the welcoming committee, making eye contact and even calling on people. That leader might also consider being the last to speak. Susan Cain, author of Quiet, agrees and says that introverts actually appreciate being called on. At the same time, she also recommends that introverts “prepare their thoughts ahead of time,” doing whatever they need to do to feel comfortable speaking up.
There are many ways to set protocols for a meeting. You can send a checklist of “pre-work” to give the meeting context. You can send a clear agenda, with enough advance notice for everyone to read and reflect upon it before the meeting, which is a great way to engage introverts. You can also assign someone to keep time against an agenda, making sure the meeting stays on task. Other protocol tricks include placing a basket outside the conference room for all devices or only allowing attendees to use devices for the last few minutes of a meeting to schedule the follow-up.
And finally, pause
When we mind our meetings, we practice being purposeful, being present, and instituting protocols. That is to say, we don’t mess around with people’s time. Therefore, before sending out that meeting invite, take a moment and pause. Ask yourself: “Is this meeting necessary? Were the right people there the last time? What could be changed?”
If you are one of those people who really does need to be in meetings for much of the day, take some advice from Warby Parker CEO Dave Gilboa. Gilboa manages to reflect purposefully on his many meetings, rating them (each week) a zero, one, or two. “Zero means it was a really bad use of time, and if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t have attended that meeting at all. Two is a great use of time—I want to spend more of my time in those types of meetings. And one is somewhere in-between.”18 Then, he shares his thoughts with his assistant, who helps manages his calendar, and together they come up with a solid meeting strategy.
I’ll admit it. I love a good meeting! From a human point of view, intentional face-to-face interaction is like gold. We just have to learn how to mine for it by running each one through a human test: Does it have purpose, presence, and protocols? If so, it’s a keeper.
This article has been adapted from the book Bring Your Human to Work.